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A Life of Social Innovation: Take Risks, Engage Community, Tackle Failure

Failure should never be seen as the end, but as a guidepost that gives us lessons that will lead to change

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A conversation with the Director and Founder of Solve n+1, a social agency that facilitates projects for social good. Kenneth Heng is based in Singapore, and has been a leadership development consultant since 2013.

Are there risks involved in what your enterprise is doing? Have you even taken personal risks to get this started?

Certainly.

Even before we started Solve n+1, there was a lot of risk in my travels. When I first entered Myanmar, I bought a ticket and flew there with zero itinerary. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture, and I was completely in a new space. So much could have gone wrong.

When I came back to Singapore and talked to my friends, they looked at me and said, “What if you got lost?” “What if you got dengue or became ill?” “You don’t know the language, right?”

So yes, the risk is always there.

Even as an organization today, it can be challenging to describe our work to others, which is important to facilitate trust in our work, funding and partnerships. People prefer reliable practices, reliable business and all that.

In addition to myself, I have a team of three full-timers and an intern. I have to honor them for the value that they produce, in a landscape where social innovation isn’t necessarily a very valued idea.

The Solve n+1 team, Singapore, 2021

 

So for me, it was never about whether we would fail. I think the chances of failing are very high.

But for us, it was always about the people we served. At the end of the day, we want to do whatever it takes, whatever we can put on the table. These people matter, and we want to be deliberate in helping them.

You just mentioned in passing that the chances of failure are very high. I wonder if you have had any mistakes or failures that your organization actually learned from along the way.

Certainly, all the time! I think failure is something we live and breathe every day.

If we talk about social innovation, it is really about things that have never really been done before. It’s akin to navigating and drawing a map in a dark room.

So what do you do when you’re blind in a dark room? You walk in one direction, hit a wall, and then take reference from that wall and adjust.

“Failure gives us information to navigate a situation better.”

Failure is like that. Sometimes we see failure as the end of the road and think we have not made a difference. But from an engineering standpoint, failure gives us information to navigate a situation better.

A great example I could give was on our project, The Open Home Network. This network aims to tap onto the community as an informal resource supporting social service agencies.

One of the biggest failures is that we never realized how odd it is for a normal person to love a stranger. We never factored that in!

Whenever we would knock on the door of people in the community and say, “Hey, can you work with us?” All of them just said, “No.”

For one year, we were very confused about why we kept getting this answer. Until we read the research that 70% of Singaporeans said “hi” to their neighbors either zero or one time per week. That’s when we realized – if we as a community don’t even practice getting to know our neighbors, how will we care for strangers?

We had to rethink the way we approached and encouraged people to get involved. We had to reposition the project as a whole.

What happened with the Open Home Network Project? Was it successful?

Through this project, we asked families to host people in crisis who needed refuge. After some trial and errors, we had several families step up and host people who desperately needed shelter, some of whom were teenagers. These families played a key role in providing a refuge for those who otherwise may have continued in horrible situations, or even ended up without a home.

The Strait Times article about the Open Home Network, Singapore, 2020

 

The other great thing about families opening their homes is they provide relationships with the person in crisis. These relationships provide security that will enable the person in crisis to go forward with their lives.  Between the shelter they provide and the relationships that are created, this program was a real highlight for us in 2020.

What you’re doing is not very common. Do you have role models who inspire your journey? Have you found people who have helped you along the way?

The one inspiration that I always remember was when I was in Calcutta, and had the privilege of being in the home of Mother Teresa.

There is this little staircase that leads up to her little room. You get to see all the possessions that she could store in that small little room. I remember feeling like I was connected and in touch with that space, and it was a very extraordinary experience.

Here you had this lady who just simply wanted to love those in need. She built an entire ministry around the simple act of feeding people and taking care of them, even when there wasn’t a clear outcome. Until today, she remains a great inspiration for me and is one of the reasons why I do this work.

“The idea behind it is to love people better.”

Social innovation is a vehicle I have chosen to use. Yet the idea behind it is to love people better.

I am very privileged that in various seasons of my life, I had many different mentors, and I’m very thankful for them. Some of them are giants in the faith. They have been championing issues like serving ex-offenders, diaspora issues, migrant worker issues, social justice issues, health care, and all these things.

I’m very thankful for their contributions. They have encouraged me on my journey. I really wouldn’t be where I am without them.

Let’s imagine that someone comes up to you and says they want to do what you do. They want to be involved in social innovation, but they don’t know where to start. What would your advice be to that person?

I don’t know if you would call this advice, but one of the reminders I always give my team is that they are never alone. If you feel a burden for something, there will always be a community that is available for you to develop and formulate your idea.

It’s not the responsibility of the person with the idea to do everything, but the community comes together to support you.

And of course, if you can’t find a community, that’s where you can drop me an email. Share your idea with me, I would love to hear it. In time, we will develop a community of people who are constantly searching for new expressions of the way we can serve one another.

I think that will be wonderful. To have an ecosystem of thinkers that can come together to creatively think about systems, and the correlation of businesses to NGOs, the vulnerable, and the poor.

Send me an email, tell me your ideas!

Click here to hear more from Kenneth about what social innovation is, and how he started Solve n+1.

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